Sohel walked around the garden, thinking of his parents. A November wind, fresh and almost chilly, blew through the hundred-year-old rosewood trees that stood at one end of the garden, home to a vast swarm of crows, which came from miles around at evening and settled in noisily. Yes, this was home to him too, as much as Lahore was home. He’d been based here at Dunyapur since June, and now it was November. Every three weeks he drove down to Lahore in the ragtop Land Cruiser, which had no air-conditioning and was incredibly hot in summer, but rather pleasant now in the cool fall days, smoking cigarettes, sharing cigarettes with Mustafa, his driver—or, rather, Munshi Zawar Hussein’s driver, who came to Sohel on secondment. In Lahore, however, the large, fusty house made him sad. The old bearer brought in the cocktail trolley that all through his childhood had signalled the commencement of his father’s daily drinking session, tinkling into his parents’ sitting room. He had no close friends, only a cousin who would invite him over for a drink, a few others, five or six whiskeys, rolling up joints of black-tar hash. Sent abroad at thirteen, he had lost touch with the boys his age who had gone through grade school with him.
The following afternoon, Sohel sat in the garden, wisps of trailing cloud screening the pale blue sky very high up, the sun just too warm for a sweater. He heard the slamming of car doors. Munshi Zawar Hussein must be back. Two cars stood in the circular drive, not intruding into the curving portico. Walking down the steps into the sunlight, Sohel went to embrace Malik Sarkar, a tall, very straight-backed man with one of those lined faces that are old yet seem boyish, a boy grown old, wearing an immaculate white dhoti wound around his waist, a costume that very few wore anymore, a man of the fading generation. He held Sohel with one hand on each shoulder and looked into his face, studying him, then broke into a smile.
“Mian Sahib, you look exactly like your grandfather now that you’re almost grown.”
“The way he looked at my age, I suppose, which you would know better than anyone.”
“I served him then, I serve you now.”
The Maliks from Khirka had been Sohel’s family muscle for a claimed six generations, called out when some land mafia threatened a property—force used against crude force. Their dera lay outside Lahore, but within striking distance, and for generations they had preyed upon the weak and the foolish in that city, like wolves circling a herd of bison and pruning out the stragglers, serving themselves and also serving Sohel’s ancestors, symbiotic. For Sohel’s family, certain challenges could be met no other way, with holdings so large, shops and tenements in Lahore, or strips of city land liable to adverse possession. His grandfather had treated Malik Sarkar with a ceremony just a degree less formal than he reserved for the heads of great families, the Tiwanas or Noons or Qizilbashes, the Mians of Bhagbanpura. Sohel had once asked his grandfather about such distinction bestowed on a killer, and was told sharply, “These are hard men who served us in hard times. They’ve done what we couldn’t do. They live on their pride, remember that, young man. I’ve never once failed to ask Malik Sahib to be seated when he visits me, and he’s never once accepted. Or only once, when they hanged that poor boy.”
Three men emerged from the second car, a beat-up old Toyota Corolla. They stood stretching, spitting, adjusting their balls, retying their turbans, looking around at the house with its rounded portico and columned veranda, the massive old rosewood trees filled with a chorus of bulbuls and crows, parakeets that fed on the guavas, sparrows hopping around in the dusty curving driveway, enjoying dust baths in the warm sun reflected off the whitewashed building.
A fifth man stood behind Malik Sarkar. He alone was dressed in city clothes, a starched white shalvar kameez, paired with a blue blazer, like a senior district official or a sharp businessman of the rising class.
“My nephew,” Malik Sarkar said offhandedly, gesturing at him. “Take a look—even the Maliks of Khirka have become gentlemen in this generation. Rather, my grandnephew. Malik Sharif.”
The man, six or seven years older than Sohel, stepped forward and made a formal obeisance with the old feudal gesture, bending his knee slightly as he took Sohel’s hand in both of his own. His slender figure and the quickness of his movement lent him grace, and he finished it with a disarmingly sweet smile showing his small, very white teeth.
Sohel had debated with himself the delicate question of whether Malik Sarkar should be lodged in the guesthouse—which ordinarily would not be offered to a person of his class—or in the dera, the complex of buildings and stores in the village itself where lower-status guests would be entertained by the munshis and brought to meet his grandfather as required. Under the circumstances, better to bow too low, he had concluded, than not low enough, easing his sense of propriety with the thought that Malik Sarkar had been of his grandfather’s generation.
“I’ll say my prayers now and rest, thank you,” Malik Sarkar said, “but I’ll go back to Lahore this evening. Old men don’t like to spend the night away from home. If I am to die tonight, I wish to be in Khirka.”
At tea, Sohel contrasted the old man’s dignified bearing with his rough manners, pouring tea into the saucer and slurping it up. When Sohel insisted that he at least stay for dinner, Malik Sarkar couldn’t manage a fork and knife, but called for chapatis and ate with his hands.
“This is no time to be on the K.L.P. road,” Sohel said, when Malik Sahib took his leave. “You won’t be home before dawn.”
Malik Sarkar made his only reference to his calling. “Don’t worry, Mian Sahib. Men like us are accustomed to travelling in the night.” When Sohel had broached the Chandio issue, Malik Sarkar said, “Tell this all to my grandnephew. Now these boys handle everything. I’ve only made this journey to pay Mian Abdullah Abdalah’s grandson my respects. You summoned me and I came.”
Young Malik Sharif did not eat dinner with them, and he kept back in the shadows when Sohel saw off the old Malik. Sohel remembered so many other nighttime departures from this veranda, returning to Lahore after a week’s sojourn with his father and mother, last drinks and running late, a line of jeeps sputtering and spicing the air with their exhaust, managers waiting to say their salaams, off to catch the up-country train from the old colonial railway station at Cawnapur—the Khyber Mail, Tezgam Express.
Turning just as he stepped into the car, Malik Sarkar took Sohel’s face in both his hands, almost tenderly, and said, “This is my first visit to your family’s Dunyapur. This land is your gold mine. Thank you for showing it to us. And don’t worry, we’ll settle everything now.” The look that passed across Malik Sarkar’s face reminded Sohel that he had certainly killed men in his long career. His flamboyant mustache extended from tight lips, a thin mouth. “Now you will be the one we call Mian Abdalah, since your father and grandfather have left us.” Then he kissed Sohel on the forehead, and touched his head, a gesture of blessing more commonly extended to a daughter or a niece or a young child.
When Sohel asked at breakfast if Malik Sharif had eaten, Fezoo replied, “What can I say, Mian Sahib? They asked for food at two in the morning, and they called me twice more to make tea. They kept saying, ‘What’s this watered-out railway-station tea?’ Everything’s a joke to them.”
After breakfast Sohel walked with Zawar Hussein on one of the distant farms, where they would not run into the Chandio brothers. At lunchtime, Malik Sharif still had not emerged, though he and his men had called for food, so again Sohel went out, now rather annoyed. He carried a revolver, his grandfather’s Webley from his service days, as he walked among fields of mature sugarcane standing more than head high. The land, so flat, so dusty, had a mood that he loved at evening, when the light settled down upon it, and he thought of the horizon, of the desert just to the east, open there all the way to India, to Jaisalmer, Bikaner. He felt his family’s uncertain place here as a longing. The people still called them Punjabis, implying that they were carpetbaggers from the north—the villagers all long settled here, most of them Riyastis, lieges to the Bahawalpur nawabs whose reign had passed just a few decades ago.
Driving into the dera, he saw Malik Sharif sprawled on a chair in the sun, reading an Urdu newspaper, and his three men on a charpoy. The young man’s shalvar gleamed white, his shoes polished as if dipped in some bright substance, hair smoothed back and rather long, foppish. He had no more the deferential air that he assumed in front of his granduncle, but strolled up to Sohel wide-armed, an easy, open approach.
“Mian Sahib, oh Mian Sahib. You farm like an Englishman! Our people never bother going out to their lands.” He gestured around at the dera. “Why not do your business here? There should be guys tied upside down in the trees and a line of their families come to beg their release.”
His men continued to lounge on the charpoy, one of them smoking a hookah. “Get up, you donkeys! Are you blind, or didn’t you see Mian Sahib come in?”
They grunted themselves up, grinning broadly. One of them carried a stubby little Kalashnikov, cradling it under his arm, barely showing.
“Glad to see your men came prepared.”
“What can I do? I have so many enmities.”
“I hope I don’t add another one to your list.”
“Don’t worry, your Chandios are just a snack for my boys.”
“Come to the house and have tea. Let’s talk it over.”
“I didn’t know the lands around here were so rich,” Malik Sharif said. They were sitting in the middle of the garden that fronted the house, looking onto the cricket pitch laid out by Sohel’s father. “This garden itself would be a good-sized field, if you put in sugarcane.”
“That’s a fine idea, Malik Sahib. I’ll plow up the flowers and put in something better paying.”
Malik Sharif looked at him sharply. “Do you really think so, Mian Sahib?”
“I was planning on getting some horses, actually. I could graze them here.”
“That’s better. It’s a good safe place for riding if things get ugly. You wouldn’t want to do that out on your farm with the Chandios and the Kandios and the Bandios and God knows what else. Thank God for your nice high wall. But you need more guards. You don’t have any fighting men at all.”
“But I have you!”
“Yes, you do. And lucky I’m here. We need to show these Chandios exactly who’s boss on this farm. Then you’ll be free to ride wherever you want. After my fellows are done, these bastards will salute you by shitting their pants when you pass by.”
Sohel winced at the phrase, yet he felt almost for the first time since he came to the farm that with these goondas he outgunned the many desperate men plaguing the district. Going out on the farm that morning had been an act of bravura. Walking through alleys of sugarcane, he had been thinking that surely the Chandios must have a plan of escalation, if they had gone to such extremes as to beat up his childhood caretaker.
“In a minute I’ll call in Munshi Zawar Hussein,” Sohel offered. “The Chandios have a pretty good connection with the S.P. in Cawnapur. As you know, under their uniforms the police are cousins to the thieves. That’s why I didn’t bother calling them before I sent to Malik Sarkar Sahib.”
Malik Sharif looked at Sohel appraisingly.
“You didn’t call them, eh? Better not to unless you know they’ll come. And another thing. Your Zawar Hussein is too clever by half. He’s been here for quite a while, I gather. We always say, rich men’s sons with new cars and old munshis soon end up losing it all. You should change your manager every two years. But let’s not worry about him; we’ll sort him out later.”
This tickled Sohel’s sense of loyalty to the manager, almost family over the years.